10 Surprising Facts About Abraham Lincoln

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A Brief History

On October 23, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln, defender of the Union of the United States, illegally suspended the rule of Habeas Corpus, the Constitutional protection of Americans against being held in confinement without charges and due process.  Lincoln has been made into an American legend and icon, an idol mostly deserving of high praise, but he was not necessarily what people think he was, or what schools teach children about him.  Here we list 10 things either contrary to the Lincoln myth, or interesting facts that you might not be aware of.

Digging Deeper

1. Suspension of Habeas Corpus.

The Suspension Clause of the Constitution does allow for a suspension of Habeas Corpus in time of national rebellion or invasion, but Lincoln narrowly applied his edict without the support of Congress and only to the State of Maryland.  Maryland was a slave state, and in 1861 there was still a chance Maryland would choose to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy.  Lincoln had a US Congressman from Maryland, and most of the Baltimore city officials arrested and held without charges, including the police, the entire city council and the mayor!  When a Federal Court overruled Lincoln’s action, the President ignored the Court, drawing criticism from a prominent journalist.  Lincoln had the journalist arrested without charges!  If these actions do not sound like what you would expect from the Lincoln you know, read on.  (Note: Congress later passed a bill suspending Habeas Corpus in March of 1863.)

2. Lincoln was an Atheist.

Brought up in a strict Baptist family and community, Lincoln was known as a religious skeptic and did not ever regularly attend church services.  He even went so far as to ridicule religious people.  Lincoln later attended church with his wife, who apparently was a believer, and Abe was knowledgeable about the Bible, often quoting it.  Lincoln’s lack of adherence to organized religion led to debate as to whether or not he was a Christian, an atheist, or a Deist (an ambiguous believer in some sort of God, but nothing specific).  Many non-believers in the 18th and 19th Century that did not want to be called Atheists publicly called themselves Deists (eg. Thomas Jefferson).  Lincoln’s political enemies labeled him an Atheist, which almost cost him election to Congress, and resulted in a lukewarm denial of the “charge” by Lincoln, who was forced to claim a belief in Christianity in order to remain in politics.  Like many politicians (including Stalin, Napoleon Bonaparte, and almost assuredly the clowns that have been running the United States the past few decades), Lincoln used religious references in speeches to rally the public and unify support for his agenda.

3. Lincoln’s Log Cabin.

Located outside of Charleston, Illinois is a rustic log cabin in an 86 acre park designated a State Historic Site.  Unfortunately, this is not the log cabin Lincoln was born in.  It is not even the fake log cabin purported to be the actual Lincoln cabin that toured the country in the late 19th Century!  It is merely a replica.  Another Lincoln Log Cabin exists in a shrine of granite and marble in Kentucky, the land of Lincoln’s birth.  That cabin is made from a combination of the logs that purportedly came from the original and genuine (it was not) Lincoln birthplace cabin, and the logs that came from the log cabin Confederate President Jefferson Davis was born in.  Both of these Civil War leaders happened to be born in log cabins, and entrepreneurs jumped on this fact and created mobile versions of both cabins, charging admission to see these “authentic” birthplaces.  Lincoln’s real cabin of birth was found to be only foundation stones when curiosity seekers found it after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865.  Alfred Dennet, who purchased the old Lincoln property, also bought an old log cabin from a nearby site, and moved it to the former Lincoln farm, claiming it to be genuine.  In 1897 Dennet moved the cabin to Nashville for the exposition there, at which time he also came up with the phony Jeff Davis cabin.  Moving from city to city, the logs became intermingled, and the cabins were combined into the “Lincoln and Davis Cabin!”  When the logs were taken back to Kentucky in 1916 to be assembled in the stone shrine built to commemorate Abe Lincoln, the cabin would not fit inside, and so a smaller version was built to fit within the monument.  In 1933 President Franklin Roosevelt had the memorial transferred to the National Park Service, and the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park was born, and still exists.  Of course, scholars easily proved the phony nature of the cabin, and even the son of Abraham Lincoln, Robert Todd Lincoln, called the cabin “a fraud.”  21st Century scientific analysis proves the logs date only from about 1848.  The Park now calls the cabin “symbolic.”  Who can you trust?

4. Lincoln the Racist.

The Great Emancipator, the man who freed the slaves and is idolized for that reason did not believe Africans were the equal of Europeans and his words clearly say so.  When Southern States seceded, Lincoln made it clear that he was fighting to preserve the Union, and was in no way going to infringe on the “rights” of states to permit slavery.  Only when it was politically necessary did Lincoln endorse emancipation of slaves in order to influence European countries and gain a moral upper hand.  Lincoln wrote that he believed the “science” that proved the races were physically different, and that his belief was that Blacks and Whites could never co-exist as equals.  Lincoln, even while President in the midst of the Civil War told Black ministers invited to the White House that he did not believe the races should or could live together, and in fact should live apart.  Lincoln also publicly stated that one race had to be superior to the other, and that in this case it was the White race superior to the Black race.  Lincoln made a campaign statement that he in no way espoused equality between Whites and Blacks.  Lincoln also endorsed the laws against interracial marriage, although he claimed that he and his friends would never even consider marrying a Black person.  Along those same lines, Lincoln thought that intermarriage would result in the ruination of the family institution and of society, further expounding on the “necessity” for the separation of the races.

5. Lincoln had Malaria, Smallpox, and Syphilis.

Lincoln contracted the mosquito borne disease Malaria not once, but twice, in 1830 and in 1835.  Shortly after delivering the Gettysburg Address, the President came down with Smallpox, but luckily the case was survivable, although probably much more serious than previously believed.  Although still able to fulfill his duties while ill, Lincoln’s routine was adversely affected by the Smallpox.  Finally, it has long been debated whether or not Lincoln had contracted Syphilis, possibly around 1835.  He supposedly told a friend that he had contracted the venereal disease, but scholars debate the veracity of the report.  As many cases of the disease remain fairly mild and do not result in debilitating mental and physical symptoms, it is entirely possible that Lincoln (and his wife) may have suffered from what was then an incurable disease.  Lincoln is known to have taken mercury for medicinal purposes, possibly as a treatment for Syphilis.

6. Lincoln was Clinically Depressed.

Various traumatic events in Lincoln’s life are believed by some historians and biographers to have resulted in periods of severe depression, starting with the 1835 death of his 22 year old sweetheart, Ann Rutledge, from Typhoid Fever.  Even while President, Lincoln admitted his continued love for the lost Ann.  Other events, such as major battle losses during the Civil War are said to have driven the President into deep melancholy, not all that surprising, considering.  Historians are in debate as to whether or not Lincoln authored a suicide poem in 1838, called The Suicide’s Soliloquy.  It seems likely Lincoln was a generally depressed person, with these various traumatic events (deaths of his children for example) building up over the years, exacerbated by new bad news events.

7. Lincoln probably did not have Acromegaly or Marfan’s Syndrome.

Although often theorized about, Lincoln’s great height, facial irregularity, long arms and overall odd appearance have given rise to frequent references to him suffering from either Acromegaly (a type of gigantism, as exemplified by former professional wrestler Andre the Giant) or Marfan’s Syndrome.  Scientific analysis concludes that he suffered from neither, or at least if he had Acromegaly it was a mild case.  DNA analysis has never been done, nor has his body ever been exhumed for modern forensic examination.

8. Despite being shot in the brain, Lincoln took over 8 hours to die.

Abraham Lincoln was shot behind the left ear at close range with a single shot Derringer pistol, the bullet piercing his skull and embedding itself deep within the President’s brain.  Physicians attended to the wounded President almost immediately, and Lincoln was moved to a bed in a nearby house.  The doctors could not remove the bullet, but did remove pieces of broken skull and periodically removed blood clots from the wound, the removal of which each time restored Lincoln’s breathing.  Of course, attending physicians knew the wound was fatal, but did what they could for their patient.  Lincoln is reported to have died calmly without any hard breathing or convulsion at the time of death.

9. Criminals attempted to steal Lincoln’s Body for ransom.

Sounds like a bad movie script?  Yes, but it is true.  In 1874 a Chicago crime boss, James “Big Jim” Kennally, conspired to have the body of the former President stolen from his tomb, the body held for a money ransom and the release from custody of one of Kennally’s associates.  The crime was foiled when the criminals that had broken into the tomb could not move the heavy coffin.  Oh, and the fact that 2 of the men on the job were undercover agents of the Secret Service!  Measures were later taken to prevent any similar efforts to steal Lincoln’s remains, and in 1900 at the insistence of Lincoln’s son, Lincoln’s coffin was placed in a steel crypt 10 feet below the surface.  Incredibly, it was felt necessary in 1901 to open Lincoln’s casket to ensure the body was still in the casket.  (It was.)  In 1930 and 1931 work was undertaken to rebuild the Lincoln tomb, at which time the marble sarcophagus was outside, where souvenir hunters removed as much of it as they could.  Lincoln’s wife and 3 of his sons are buried in the Lincoln tomb, with the other son (Robert Todd Lincoln) buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

10. Lincoln’s Wife was later committed to a mental institution.

Long believed to be suffering from depression and mental illness, Mary Todd Lincoln has recently been diagnosed through the century plus since her death as having suffered from Pernicious Anemia and a Vitamin B12 deficiency, that is to blame for her infamous mental instability that resulted in her son having her committed to a mental institution in 1875.  In fact, a jury trial was conducted to authorize the commitment.  After losing her sanity hearing, Mary was so distraught she went to a pharmacy to buy a fatal dose of Laudanum in order to commit suicide.  Her suicide attempt was foiled by an alert pharmacist that gave her a placebo concoction instead of real medicine.  Mary conspired with a feminist lawyer to arrange her escape from the mental asylum, but was released to the custody of her sister after a year at the institution.  She also long suffered from a variety of physical problems, some of which may have been hypochondria, but many of the problems quite real.  Shortly before her death, Mary petitioned the Government for an increased pension, an attempt hindered by her reputation as being careless with money.  She was granted an increased pension, largely due to the assassination of James Garfield in 1881, and public concern about the welfare of Garfield’s widow.  Mary Todd Lincoln died at the age of 63 in 1882.

Question for students (and subscribers): What other Lincoln trivia deserves a place on this list?  Feel free to offer your suggestions in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Kirov, Blago.  Abraham Lincoln: Quotes & Facts.  Blago Kirov, 2014.

The featured image in this article, Lincoln sworn in by Chief Justice Taney, is from the National Photo Company collection at the Library of Congress.  This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID npcc.19238.  According to the library, there are no known copyright restrictions on the use of this work.  This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer.  This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1924.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.